In Mexico, Piñatas Are Not Just Child’s Play. They’re a 400-Year-Old Tradition

María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías swiftly cuts hundreds of strips of newsprint and colored crepe paper needed to make a piñata, soothed by Norteño music on the radio while measuring pieces by feel.

“The measurement is already in my fingers,” Ortiz Zacarías says with a laugh.

She has been doing this since she was a child, in the family-run business alongside her late mother, who learned the craft from her father. Piñatas haven’t been displaced by more modern customs, and her family has been making a living off them into its fourth generation.

María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarías sells piñatas at her small family-run piñata-making business in Acolman, just north of Mexico City, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. The family started their business in Acolman, where Ortiz Zacarías’ mother was known as “the queen of the piñatas” before her death. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Ortiz Zacarías calls it “my legacy, handed down by my parents and grandparents.”

Business is steady all year, mainly with birthday parties, but it really picks up around Christmas. That’s because piñatas are interwoven with Christian traditions in Mexico.

There are countless designs these days, based on everything from Disney characters to political figures. But the most traditional style of piñata is a sphere with seven spiky cones, which has a religious origin.

Each cone represents one of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Hitting the paper-mache globe with a stick is a symbolic blow against sin, with the added advantage of releasing the candy within.

Piñatas weren’t originally filled with candy, nor made mainly of paper. Grandparents in Mexico can remember a time a few decades ago when piñatas were clay pots covered with paper and filled with hunks of sugar cane, fruits and peanuts. The treats were received quite gladly, though falling pieces of the clay pot posed a bit of a hazard.

Traditional Christmas “piñatas” that will be filled with fruit and candy are displayed at a small family-run business in Acolman just north of Mexico City, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. This style of piñata has a religious origin, with each cone representing one of the seven deadly sins, and hitting the globe with a stick is a symbolic blow against sin. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

But the tradition goes back even further. Some say piñatas can be traced back to China, where paper-making originated.

In Mexico, they were apparently brought by the Spanish conquerors, but may also replicate pre-Hispanic traditions.

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